Catherine Flanley, Eck Institute for Global Health Fellow and member of Mary Ann McDowell's lab, shares details about her current work, memorable experiences at Notre Dame, and plans for the future.
Q. Tell us a little bit about your area of study. How and when did you first become interested in the field?
A. As a member of the McDowell lab, my work focuses on vector biology, or simply put, I study an insect that transmits disease. I always loved science, even in elementary school. I first became interested in infectious diseases in high school when I read The Hot Zone by Richard Preston. That interest solidified when I interned at the United States Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases during the summer between my junior and senior years in high school.
Q. What are you currently working on, and what do you hope to accomplish with it?
A. Currently, I investigate sand fly spit. Phlebotomus papatasi is a sand fly species found in northern Africa, southern Europe, and the Middle East. It vectors a parasite, Leishmania major, that causes cutaneous leishmaniasis (CL), which results in scarring skin lesions in infected individuals. No vaccine exists and current treatments are expensive and difficult for patients to tolerate. Female sand flies require a blood meal to lay eggs. Salivary proteins from the spit of multiple phlebotomine sand fly species have been widely studied to characterize their function in blood feeding facilitation as well as their ability to exacerbate or attenuate Leishmania infections and their potential as vaccine candidates. A successful sand fly salivary protein-based vaccine to combat CL largely depends on the genetic variability, expression profiles, and human immune response to the salivary proteins selected from geographically distant sand fly populations. My work analyzes nine abundantly expressed P. papatasi salivary proteins as potential vaccine targets that are conserved across populations from three distinct habitats in Egypt and Jordan. In other words, I need to identify the salivary proteins that are genetically the same whether the sand fly comes from Egypt or Jordan. Additionally, I utilize computer programs that predict each salivary protein’s potential to elicit an immune response in humans. If no immune response is predicted, that salivary protein would be excluded as a vaccine candidate. I hope that this work will inform downstream vaccine development against CL. One salivary protein, PpSP15, has shown promise as a vaccine target but it does not confer full protection. My work identifies other salivary protein candidates that may be used in combination with PpSP15 to boost the immune response and which proteins should not be considered.
Q. What is your most memorable experience at Notre Dame and why?
A. My most memorable experience was conducting research in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, with Dr. Fernando Genta at Fundação Oswaldo Cruz, a major public health research and development institution. With the support of a USAID | Notre Dame Global Development fellowship and a generous travel grant from the Eck Institute for Global Health, I participated in new research to develop longevity markers in sand flies as a way to age natural populations. During a field work outing to trap sand flies, I met a woman who had a large CL scar on her calf. She contracted CL when she was 12 and every day for one year, she had to hike down a mountain for treatment before the lesion healed. Meeting her put a face to my research and connected me to its importance in a way I had not felt before.
Q. Do you have any plans for the future? If so, what are they?
A. Ultimately, I will pursue a career where the work is translatable and improves people’s lives in the global health sphere. In the near future, my plans include my defense, graduation, and taking a bit of time off to see my family and friends back home, and relaxing on a beach.
Q. Can you tell us a fun fact about yourself, or something you enjoy doing in your free time?
A. For my master’s degree I tested black bears for their exposure to three different infectious diseases. During my field work, I learned how to set snares, tranquilize bears, weigh and take measurements, collect blood and tissue samples, remove the equivalent of a wisdom tooth (for aging purposes), and tattoo their ear tag numbers into their upper lips. I really wish I could add bear phlebotomist and tattoo artist to my CV! I also worked with bear cubs and know that they purr when they are comfortable and content.